Facebook and YouTube have admitted to removing hundreds of pages of contents uploaded to their respective sites from war zones that could potentially be used to prosecute war crime. The International Criminal Court (ICC) has issued warrants citing evidence in social media in the past. YouTube also took down content from the activist group AirWars, which aims to document Russian and US coalition air strikes on Syria.
YouTube points the finger at AI (Artificial Intelligence) software that was used to shut down over 900 groups and individuals that were documenting the war in Syria. Some of the organisations that were affected by YouTube’s ‘censorship’ include UK-based Bellingcat, Idlib Media Center, Witness, Turkey-based Qasioun News Agency among numerous others.
“It’s something that keeps me awake at night,” says Julian Nicholls, a senior trial lawyer at the International Criminal Court, “the idea that there’s a video or photo out there that I could use, but before we identify it or preserve it, it disappears.”
Nearly 6,000 videos from his agency have been removed by YouTube since 2014, says Talal Kharrat, a Manager at The Turkish-based Qasioun News Agency, sometimes the content is restored, sometimes not. The contents of these videos or images might have served as evidence for prosecuting cases against war criminals.
Dramatic shift in policy?
The level of uncertainty of whether such vital content will be kept online is very different to the era during which the Arab Spring occurred. At that time, social media organisations promoted the documenting of oppression in the name of free-speech. The executive Chair Eric Schmidt of Google, YouTube’s parent organisation, wrote in his book, published in 2013, “The New Digital Age”:
“Anyone with a mobile handset and access to the Internet will be able to play a part in promoting accountability.”
This is similar to what Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg claimed in one of his papers, that he believes “connectivity is a human right”.
Alexa Koenig, executive director at the Human Rights Center at UC Berkeley, argues:
“They could have said: ‘Don’t use your platforms for this.’ But they actually tried to get these people to use their platforms [for it] — they held themselves up as arbiters of social good, and at that point of creating dependency, I would argue they acquired a heightened responsibility.”
Combating ISIS propaganda or targeting activists?
On the other hand, the social media giants claim that these censorships are aimed at combating ISIS propaganda, despite arguments of some kind of ‘relationship’ between the notorious group and the main stream media.  
Eliot Higgins, founder of Bellingcat – the UK NGO that was affected by YouTube’s AI – and a visiting research associate at Kings College London, expressed his frustration over YouTube’s implementation of the AI.
“Ironically, by deleting years old opposition channels YouTube is doing more damage to Syrian history than ISIS could ever hope to achieve”, he tweeted.
Ironically, by deleting years old opposition channels YouTube is doing more damage to Syrian history than ISIS could ever hope to achieve
— Eliot Higgins (@EliotHiggins) August 12, 2017
“And now imagine you’re a Syrian group uploading 1000s of videos from the last 6 years. Just need 3 strikes and they’re all gone”, Higgins added.
And now imagine you're a Syrian group uploading 1000s of videos from the last 6 years. Just need 3 strikes and they're all gone.
— Eliot Higgins (@EliotHiggins) August 12, 2017
“It was bad enough when Facebook was deleting accounts from Syria, destroying years of information but it’s terrible now YouTube has joined in”, Higgins noted.
It was bad enough when Facebook was deleting accounts from Syria,destroying years of information but it's terrible now YouTube has joined in
— Eliot Higgins (@EliotHiggins) August 15, 2017
Just a few days before this incident, Google Europe tweeted: “#DNIFunded @bellingcat verifies & preserves social media from conflict zones for investigative reporting. More: https://goo.gl/fjYi5Q”
— Google Europe (@googleeurope) August 9, 2017
Higgins said that it was not possible for him to back up all of those videos, as they were in their thousands, however, he did confirm that some of the playlists, which contained evidences of ‘alleged chemical attacks’ were backed up by the Syrian Archive – “an open source platform that collects, curates, verifies, and preserves visual documentation of human rights violations in Syria”. 
Higgins later posted an update stating that YouTube had “restored the videos on my account but all my dozens of playlists have been deleted for no reason.”
Another @YouTube update, they restored the videos on my account but all my dozens of playlists have been deleted for no reasons
— Eliot Higgins (@EliotHiggins) August 15, 2017
Not all organisations or individuals are as fortunate though, as indicated in Google’s official tweet, Bellingcat was working with Google, so, they could request for their content to be restored. The case of Qasioun News Agency has not been as straight forward. People have asked the question, if the AI was only meant to target so-called ‘ISIS propaganda’, why were well-known organisations stung by this operation?
It is important to note that these are giant multi-national corporations whose decisions are not always necessarily made by the same people or interests. For example, YouTube had reportedly worked with Bellingcat in the past to develop a tool to help investigators crowdsource analysis of conflict videos, adding to the confusion and controversy caused by their apparent removal of what could be evidence of war crimes.
Facebook vs YouTube
Human rights activists say Facebook has been less open to such collaborations. “Facebook has been a mess forever,” Higgins told The Intercept. He pointed out that 80% of the first-hand reports of the attack, including videos and images posted to Facebook were erased from the platform. Facebook declined to answer a question in relation to this claim, The Intercept reported. 
Destruction of evidence?
There are those who claim that the takedowns seem, at best, a destruction of evidence — and, at worst, complicity in atrocities. Mohammed Anwar, a Rohingya activist, whose posts were deleted by Facebook, expressed the following:
“I did feel that Facebook was colluding with the Myanmar regime in the Rohingya genocide.”
There are 30 cases in Swedish and German courts focusing on crimes committed in Syria and Iraq, reported The New York Times.
Though German courts take cases based on a concept of ‘universal jurisdiction’, even the ICC is unable to obtain information related to war crimes – committed by US soldiers – from US-based companies, due to a law – American Service-Members’ Protection Act – signed by then-President George W. Bush in 2002. How, then, does the US aim to spread justice?
Bearing of responsibility
“They just don’t appreciate what’s going on on their platforms,” said Mohammad Al Abdallah, executive director of the Syrian Justice and Accountability Project, an NGO backed by more 30 governments. “They don’t take this as seriously as they should.”
In an age in which internet connectivity and cameras are considered human necessities – if not a right – rather than a privilege and where various methods of communication have been considered indispensable tools of warfare over a millennium, the roles of mainstream media, and more recently the social media platforms, in an era of mass cruelty and corruption is substantial. And yet, we must ask, are they bearing sufficient responsibility?
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